Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Letter of James

Two “James” are well-known in the history of the early church, James the brother of John and a son of Zebedee, martyred in 44 CE by Herod Agrippa, and James, the brother of Jesus, leader in the Jerusalem church from about 36 CE until his martyrdom in 62 CE. Given the early death of James the brother of John, it seems that he is an unlikely candidate to be the James referred to in 1:1. Most likely, then, the book before us was put forward in the name of James the brother of Jesus. It is unlikely that this James is the actual author of the book. This letter is written in elegant Greek and uses sophisticated Greek grammar and rhetoric. There are only two direct references to Jesus in the entire letter, which would be odd if James the brother of Jesus were the author. Furthermore, the letter does not address the issues central to early Jewish Christianity (circumcision, Sabbath, food laws, the place of Gentiles in the church). Finally, the letter itself was embraced rather late in the process of forming the New Testament – it appears in no lists of books until 200 CE. Again, this seems unlikely for a letter written by James the brother of Jesus. In all likelihood, then, we have another example of a pseudonymous letter in the early church, that is, a letter written in the name of another person.

Given uncertainty about the author and the general nature of much of the letter, a time and place of writing are difficult to determine. It seems that the letter may have been written to Jewish Christians, but it may also be a general letter to Christians everywhere. It seems directed to groups of people rather than to a specific community of faith. It addresses a number of issues that might arise in a community of faith.

James is not addressed to a specific church; instead, it appears to be a general letter written to numerous churches…. It adopts a style of instructional speech characteristic of Greco-Roman ethical teaching…. The most striking features of this style involve questions from a fictive (imaginary) opponent, words attributed to particular characters as well as rapid-fire questions and answers. These questions need not represent actual problems within the community. Another feature of the… style involves dense use of metaphor. Many comparisons are derived from nature. Others involve human activities. Figures from the past serve as examples. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

James has suffered among Christian readers, especially Protestant, since Luther’s unfortunate reference to is as “a right strawy epistle.” More recent students of James have found the tension between Paul and James overdrawn and unfair to both, failing to credit Paul with attention to works and James with attention to faith. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

If Luther found this letter in many ways spiritually deficient, its spiritual power is attested to by an introduction to the book written by an unlikely commentator upon the Bible, the Dalai Lama (Revelations). His words give us some indication of the potential spiritual encouragement and challenge in this work.

I am struck by the similarities between this beautiful letter in the Bible and some of the texts in my own Buddhist tradition, especially those that belong to the genre known as “lojong,” literally meaning “training the mind.” As with “lojong” texts, I believe this epistle can be read on different levels. On the practical level, however, it encapsulates many of the key principles that are crucial for learning how to be a better human being. More precisely, it teaches us how to bring our spiritual vision to life at the highest possible level…. The real test of spiritual practice lies in the practitioner’s behavior. There is sometimes a tendency to think of the spiritual life as primarily introspective, divorced from the concerns of everyday life and society…. Faith that does not translate into actions is no faith at all. When we read this text from the Bible today, two thousand years after it was written, it reminds us that not only are many of our fundamental spiritual values universal, they are also perennial. (Revelations, 359, 361, 364)

I will refer back to some of the Dalai Lama’s comments about the book as we are reading through it. If you have an interest in finding out more about Buddhist lojong teachings, two works by the well-known Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron might be consulted – Start Where You Are and Always Maintain a Joyful Mind. The title of the latter book is taken from one of the lojong slogans – “always maintain only a joyful mind.” Like such teachings, the Letter of James wants us to live faith more deeply and offers instruction for doing so.

James 1

James 1:1: This greeting is the only familiar feature of a letter, and as we have noted, is probably a literary device. One note about this device – James is Greek for “Jacob” and so the letter is from “Jacob” to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” – a strong reference to Jewish Scripture and tradition.

James 1:2-26: “Taken as the rhetorical introduction to what follows, this section presents Christianity as a way to perfection” (People’s New Testament Commentary). A number of themes are introduced here that will be found in other parts of the letter.

One way to completeness, maturity, or “perfection” is to face difficulties with joy. The “trials” may be external circumstances that create difficulty (persecution for faith, difficult socioeconomic circumstances) or may be internal conditions which need to be contended with. The advice to face difficulties with joy should be given carefully. When someone is suffering, it is best to listen and suffer with them. These words are best given when one’s suffering is not acute. We can cultivate an attitude of mind that sees in difficulties opportunities for growth and learning. All experience can teach us something, though our first response when we see others suffering should be to alleviate the conditions of suffering. Peterson’s translation of verse 2: “consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides” (The Message) strikes me as a little too sanguine.

Perhaps such an attitude is a quality of wisdom, and wisdom is seen here as a gift of God, a gift of a generous God. If one lacks is wisdom, one is advised to pray for it, pray for it in faith, trusting deeply that God will grant wisdom. The kind of doubt that James is concerned with here is not intellectual doubt, but a lack of trust that even in difficulty and doubt one may grow in wisdom. Honest doubt, that struggles with faith questions, is still a sign of faith. If one lacked faith, one would not bother to continue to ask questions about one’s faith tradition.

Lack of commitment and a wavering mind are among the greatest obstacles to a successful spiritual life. However, this need not be a blind faith, but rather a commitment based on personal appreciation of the value and efficacy of the spiritual path. Such faith arises through a process of reflection and deep understanding. Buddhist texts describe three levels of faith, namely: faith as admiration, faith as reasoned conviction, and faith as emulation of high spiritual ideals. I believe that these three kinds of faith are applicable here as well. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 360)

Wisdom, in addition to being able to seek joy in the midst of struggle and difficulty, sees that riches are transitory. Being rich is like a flower that that withers away. People of faith who are poor should take heart. People of faith who are rich should take note.

As mentioned before, trials may be inner, and here the writer calls blessed those who endure temptation. In verses 2-8, endurance produces maturity, completeness. In these verses, endurance leads to life at its best and the opposite of endurance is giving in to one’s desires which leads to a kind of death. The writer argues that God is not the source of temptation, but that it comes from within. Desire should not be wholly condemned on the basis of these verses. Human desire comes in all shapes and sizes, and healthy persons are aware of their desires. Awareness is different from acquiescing to desire. Some desire should be acted upon, though how one acts upon it matters. Some desire needs to be rejected. Wisdom knows the difference.

God is giver of wisdom and life, and in fact, of every good and perfect gift. God’s love and good intentions are unchangeable – that need not mean God is in every respect unchangeable. God’s purposes continue to move forward, and the writer asserts that the recipients of the letter are a part of the fulfillment of God’s purposes. This is a wonderful poetic passage intended to evoke faith/trust in those reading it. Trust God in the midst of struggle and difficulty. Trust God for wisdom. Trust God for life.

One “desire” that a person may experience is anger, or the desire to express anger. Anger must always be handled with great care. The writer argues that anger does not produce God’s righteousness. That is perhaps too sweeping a warning, but an effective warning. I recall an essay written by the feminist theologian Beverly Harrison entitled, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” in which she argues that anger can have a place in the work of love. I think it may, but it needs to be handled with great care. “More listening and deliberate speech help keep anger in check” (People’s New Testament Commentary) Verse 19 reflects the Apocrypha book Sirach (5:11): “Be quick to hear, but deliberate in answering.” The Message: “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”

The epistle reminds us of the power of the destructive tendencies that exist naturally in all of us…. These two verses [19-20] encapsulate principles that are of utmost importance to a spiritual practitioner, and for that matter, any individual who aspires to express his or her basic human goodness. This emphasis on hearing as opposed to speaking teaches us the need for open-heartedness. For without it we have no room to receive the blessings and positive transformation that we might otherwise experience in our interaction with our fellow human beings. Open and receptive, swift to listen to others, we should be slow to speak, because speech is a powerful instrument that can be highly constructive or profoundly destructive. We are all aware how seemingly harmless speech can actually inflict deep hurt upon others…. The instruction that we should be “slow to anger” reminds us that it is vital to ensure some degree of restraint over powerful negative emotions like anger, for actions motivated by such states of mind are almost invariably destructive. This is something we must both appreciate and strive to implement in our everyday lives. Only then can we hope to reap the fruit of living a spiritual life. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 360-361)

That the Dalai Lama can be so insightful about this book says something about its values and about the type of literature it is. Its closest relatives in the Bible may be the wisdom books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and of the Apocrypha (Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon). Wisdom literature is often accessible across religious traditions in ways that other types of Biblical literature are not. James may be an early Christian wisdom book.

Not only should anger be handled with care, but we should reject all “sordidness and wickedness.” Instead we should be open to the “implanted word” the word and Spirit of God that has power to make a saving difference in our lives.

Openness to this word and Spirit of God is not a passive activity. Openness to the word and Spirit leads to life lived differently. In Greek, “hearing” and “obeying” are from the same root (People’s New Testament Commentary). What kind of activity is evidence that one has been open to word and Spirit? - - - Watching one’s tongue, caring for widows and orphans, and keeping oneself “unstained by the world.” The Message: Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God… is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. The word “religion” is rarely used in the New Testament, but seems to fit this work as a wisdom work.

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